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A moment that changed me: I heard people sneer at me – and my mummy guilt turned to anger | Life and style

I was invited to speak at a travel conference in Dublin in 2013 and I brought my 18-month-old toddler with me to the event. As a professional travel writer and photographer, my presentations had been well-received, and my daughter ran around the conference on wobbly feet, charming fellow speakers and attenders.

Afterwards, I took my daughter and my friend Germaine, who had come along to support me, to the pub reserved for attenders. That was when I heard their sneers. Four people – three men and a woman – were sitting right across from me, sharing the same table, throwing loaded looks and loud-whispering for my benefit. “Who brings a kid here?I heard one of the men saying. Their hushed conversation said it all. I was a “bad mother”.

Ten years later, I still replay that moment over in my mind. Up until that point, I had always shrunk with guilt whenever I travelled for work. After all, I lived in Stockholm and Sweden’s parental leave was one of the most generous in the world with more than a year of paid time off. Why wasn’t I choosing to simply stop working and stay home? What was I trying to prove?

I have always carried this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t mummy guilt, whether I took my children (I now have two) on a work trip or not. Many tears were shed on plane rides and in hotel rooms over the years because it was often too exhausting to explain to complete strangers that I was the breadwinner and needed to work to support my family.

That conference was when my mummy guilt first morphed into anger. How dare they judge me when they don’t know my story, I thought. The irony today is that Instagram is awash with profiles of family travel influencers. Dragging your children along on trips has become palatable and normalised, as long as you’re doing it as a family unit and not as a working mother.

Lola Akinmade Åkerström in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Bright horizons … Åkerström in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photograph: Liam Neal

Unfortunately, travelling for work as a family unit wasn’t an option for me, even though I craved it. My then-husband wanted us to stay home. As an immigrant, I couldn’t afford to be a stay-at-home mum simply living off Swedish work-life balance benefits without scorn. So I started travelling for work without my daughter. When my son arrived, those judgmental questions from others morphed into “Who takes care of your kids? How can you leave them behind? You must be so lucky to have a husband who watches your kids …”

Was I truly a bad mother for not choosing a more socially acceptable line of work? For not shrinking my dreams and making them manageable so that others might deem them worthy enough for motherhood?

That moment of anger at the conference made me realise nothing I did in life would ever be enough for those intent on making assumptions about me.

I continued to travel precisely for my kids. I was working against stereotypes, opening up new worlds of career possibilities for them, letting them see themselves reflected back in their mother, an African immigrant to the land of their birth, Sweden. Letting them know that they never have to settle for what society says is the upper limit for Swedish kids, who also happen to be brown or Black, in the Nordics.

I’ve struggled with all the conflicting messages about whether women can have it all. Especially since I was part of the most harshly judged group when it comes to parenting – a working mother of young children who travels often.

It is a choice to show my children that there are many ways to be a loving mother beyond just domesticity. I am tearing those boxes apart so their worlds are never framed by don’ts” tied solely to gender roles.

While my mummy guilt started losing steam long ago at that conference, it finally evaporated this summer. I was in Estonia for a week-long photography workshop. My now 11-year-old daughter saw my WhatsApp status update and sent me this message: “It makes me happy to see you smile.

I cried in my hotel room that day because I realised my children’s opinions are the only thing that matter to me. They watch what lights up their parents’ eyes. They feel our mood shifts and observe what brings us unbridled joy, alongside kissing them goodnight and giving them the tightest hugs. They are witnessing what it means to fully show up in your life.

Everything Is Not Enough by Lola Akinmade Åkerström, published by Apollo (£20), is out now.

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